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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given on the Feast of the Epiphany: Thursday 6 January 2011

6 January 2011 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

In my Christmas sermons I reflected on what prevents us seeing what is really important in life: the overwhelming truth that God has created the universe for love and longs to share his love with us and all those he has created. We are prevented from seeing through many things, I suggested at the Midnight Eucharist, above all, “through the brightness of more glitzy attractions, the clouds threatening our comfort or security, the obsessions and pre-possessions of our daily lives, and our preoccupation with the pavement and gutter.”

We should be able to see. The love of God is present in the world in the very created order. But it is also wonderfully and uniquely focused in his Son Jesus Christ who shows us - by his very being, by his deeds, by his words and by his sacrifice on the cross - the amazing extent of God’s love.

On Christmas morning I said, “In the outstretched arms of the new-born baby Jesus, God offers [his] love to us today, tentatively, humbly, generously. God’s gift of love has no strings attached, makes no demands, imposes no burdens. Freely given, it can be freely received. We can accept his gift of love, simply by opening our hearts and saying in our minds, ‘Yes, Lord Jesus.’”

Today, on the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we are called to reflect on the revelation of this love of God in Christ, and in particular on his manifestation to the Gentiles. The Church commends to us for our contemplation three stages in this manifestation, this showing forth. The first stage is the visit of the Wise Men. All but the marginal people of Israel largely ignore Jesus’ birth. However, people who belong to a very different culture, people from a far distant country, see the star and come to worship. They fall down and present gifts with a meaning: gold for the King of the Universe; frankincense for the great High Priest; myrrh for the sacrificial Victim. The second stage of the manifestation of Christ is the Baptism of the Lord in the river Jordan by John, when a voice is heard from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ [Matthew 3: 17] At this stage, some of John’s disciples take an interest in Jesus and he begins to attract some disciples of his own. The third stage of the manifestation of Christ is the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, when Mary, the mother of the Lord, says to her Son, ‘They have no wine.’ [John 2: 3] Jesus turns the water in six purification jars into wine and the old ritual of the people of Israel is transformed into the new wine of the free gift of God’s love. Now his disciples really take him seriously. John reports the result of this first of Jesus’ seven signs (of which the last will be the crucifixion itself), ‘Jesus revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ [John 2: 11]

Despite these revelations, these manifestations, so significant in the history of civilization and the development of our culture, many people in our generation turn their back on God’s love revealed in Christ or pass by on the other side. If we have come to see, as far as we can in this life, through a glass darkly, we should ask ourselves what are the means by which other people can come to see. The answer is relatively obvious if not that simple in practice. The means have been placed by God in the hands of the Church. First, the Church has received the Word of God and handed it on through the text of the Scriptures. The Church has the privilege of continuing to receive and to proclaim that Word, to interpret it and present it afresh in every generation. Second, through the sacraments that Christ has given his Church, the two Gospel sacraments of Holy Baptism and of the Holy Eucharist, and the other sacraments and sacramental signs, the power of God is transmitted through the grace of the Holy Spirit to transform, renew and refresh individual human beings.

Those who are charged in the Church for the interpretation of the Word and for the celebration of the Sacraments, God’s ministers, bear an awesome responsibility. That is the burden and the joy of those who are set apart and authorised through ordination to sacred ministry. But it is also the joy and privilege of all God’s faithful people to share in the responsibility of spreading the good news of God’s love. If the Church fails to manifest Christ to the people with whom he came to share the gift of God, we are all, to some degree or another, responsible.

Today’s feast offers us an opportunity to renew our commitment to receive afresh the grace and power of God through his Word and in his Sacraments so that we can more effectively share his love with others. It all began when the shepherds and the Wise Men fell down and worshipped. For us too it begins with worship. In our worship tonight we offer the gift of the bread and wine and receive the inexpressible gift of the Body and Blood of the Lord. We offer our praise and thanksgiving. We offer ourselves, our souls and bodies. Nothing less than that is worthy of the great gift we have received. Nothing less than that will prepare us for the worship of heaven, our ultimate calling and our destiny. Everything flows from worship and everything comes back to worship again, as that is where it will end.

‘They saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts.’ [Matthew 2: 11]

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